Ayn Rand vs. Ecology


"An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated." [1] "The standard by which one judges which is good or evil—is man's life." [2]

Of all the topics of concern in the world today, none is more directly concerned with survival, with life, than is ecology. I was therefore truly amazed that Ayn Rand, whose political philosophy is based on the ultimate value of life, came out strongly against the whole ecology movement! Her views were set forth most explicitly in her annual speech before The Ford Hall Forum in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 November 1970, reprinted in her magazine THE OBJECTIVIST in January and February 1971. [3]

Why would Ayn Rand come out so strongly against a movement which claims to be pro-life? Only Miss Rand can answer that question. The most sinister interpretation would be that she has "sold-out" to her supporters, many of whom are the biggest polluters in the nation. This charge would be next to impossible to prove. More likely, she has simply misread the entire movement, classifying it as part of the New Left, and stereotyping all "eco-freaks," or members of the ecology movement, as dupes of the Left.

This is a completely inaccurate picture of the ecologists. If types of people are important, then let us be clear about what types of people are "involved" in the ecology movement. People of all political persuasions are involved in the movement. There are people who are members of the New Left, also members of the Old Left, the Old Right, and the New Right. There are also people in the movement who have no well-defined political philosophy at all.


It is erroneous to refer to all those concerned with ecology as unwashed hippies as Miss Rand does. [4] In fact, it is as hard to refer collectively to eco-fans as it is to Objectivists. They are all (more or less) individuals. The one common factor which makes them classifiable in a group is the fact that they are mostly concerned with the survival of man, with man's life. This surely does not make them hippies. In my experience I have heard concern over the state of the environment expressed by housewives, businessmen, educators, scientists, medical doctors, Republicans, Democrats, students—people representing almost every sector of American society.

So much for Miss Rand's typifying of the eco-freaks as New Leftists or unwashed hippies. But what about the charge she raises that they are more concerned about "seaweeds and inanimate matter" [5] than they are about man?

True, there are people in the movement who are more concerned with saving the world for the fish than they are with saving the world for man. However, my experience has been that these people represent less than 1% of all the people in the movement. The major emphasis of most people is that if the world is not a fit place in which fish can live, it will not be a fit place for men to live, either. That is to say, the concern of most of these people for the lives of the Louisiana brown pelican and the Arctic polar bear is derived from their concern for their own lives, a viewpoint that should seem proper to any student of Objectivism.


One major lesson learned from the science of ecology is that the vast network of interrelationships among all living organisms on earth permits the survival of each one (including man). Man depends on various plants, animals, birds, fish, etc. for food. These in turn depend upon other plants, animals, insects, birds, fish, minerals, etc. for food. Nature seeks a balance among all its creatures. If the population of mountain lions is decreased, the deer population will increase until the land can no longer furnish sufficient food. Then the deer will die of starvation. Kill all the jackrabbits in a region and the predator birds may turn to a farmer's chickens for food. Move an insect such as the fire ant into a region such as the southeastern U.S. where it has no natural enemies and watch it proliferate. Kill all the micro-organisms called phytoplankton which live near coastal areas by dumping garbage in the ocean and watch your catch of shrimp diminish.

But why should we be concerned about the brown pelican, or the polar bear, or the deer, or the phytoplankton? For one thing, these interrelationships among organisms are not fully understood yet. There is no way of telling what effect on man's life the extinction of a presently available species would have. This does not mean we can never move out of fear of what effect our actions will have. [6] But it does mean that we must be concerned about the balance of nature and move very carefully—to ensure man's survival.

Let us be clear about what I mean when I talk of "man's survival." I mean it in the same sense in which Miss Rand uses the phrase. [7]

It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival.…"Man's survival qua man" means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice. [8]

So we are not talking about the survival of a species called "man," or even of the deaths of men, but of a certain quality of life of individual men.


There is another reason to watch the fate of the pelican and the polar bear with concern. In years past, coal miners kept a canary down in the mine with them. If the canary died, the miners knew they should evacuate the mine immediately because poisonous gases were present—gases that affected the tiny canary before they affected man.

Miss Rand and others argue that we need not be concerned about the extinction of a few species of animals. They note that thousands of species of plants and animals have become extinct during the history of the earth, most notably the dinosaurs. [9]

Of interest to ecologists, however, is not the fact that a few more species will become extinct but the reason why these species become extinct. The dinosaurs died off, it is generally believed, because the earth suffered a climate change to which the dinosaurs could not adapt. The brown pelican, however, is dying because man has introduced a poison (DDT) into the ecosystem. Man can stop using this poison and ensure the survival of the brown pelican; he can also continue using it until he finds, as one research study has, [10] that human mother's milk contains four times as much DDT as cow's milk. Man is eating and drinking food poisoned with DDT and related compounds to such an extent that man himself is endangered. Look at the miner: he does not take precautionary measures in the mine to make sure the canary does not die. He does it to save himself.


Miss Rand dismisses the environmental crisis as much less critical than I believe it is. She calls it "an artificial, p.-r.-manufactured issue" [11] and talks about the "vague threats of an unknowable, cosmic cataclysm." [12] One wonders what kind of proof she would need to be convinced of the dangers that threaten man's life!

The effects of overcrowding from a too large population are already obvious. The traffic problems in the large cities of the world are evidence of the population overexpansion, as are the housing problems faced by most of the countries in the world. Just try to find a spot on this planet now that has not been seen before by man—or look for a spot where you will not find an empty beer can or where you will not see another person for an entire day. It is a real challenge. A person must have quite a bit of money to enjoy such rare delights these days.


Or think of air or water pollution. Miss Rand says, "City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that the ecological panic-mongers claim them to be)." [13] Air pollution has already put thousands into hospitals and has killed hundreds. The same is true for water pollution. [14] How much of a danger must air or water pollution be before we start holding polluters liable for damages? Real damage is being done. When Miss Rand speaks lightly of polluting acts, she does not encourage rational consideration of a serious matter.

Miss Rand talks of the problem of noise pollution as if it were a minor problem and as if the only solution is to get rid of the machine that makes the noise, forcing man to return to the Dark Ages. [15] But no one wants to return to the Dark Ages. The way to solve the problem is not to get rid of the machines but to make the machines less noisy! A motorcycle does not have to sound like a jackhammer. Its engine can be muffled. Jackhammers themselves are now manufactured which are significantly less noisy than the older models. And let no one convince you that noise is not a problem. It causes deafness, emotional fatigue, and tension. A loud enough noise can also kill. [16]

Could we go on our merry, irresponsible way, not caring whether we destroy the lives of our fellow men, as long as we do not do it directly? Is this the course of rational men?


Who pollutes? Who is irresponsible? Miss Rand says, "Observe that industry has been made the scapegoat in this issue, as in all modern issues. But industry is not the only culprit.…" [17] Of course industry is not the only culprit! She has not been following the ecology movement well, or she would know that practically every eco-freak realizes this and will tell you the same thing. Private individuals and government, as well as industry, are guilty of throwing wastes into the environment. The ecology movement is not an "anti-industrial" movement.

Is it an "anti-technology" movement? In fact, there are people in the movement who would "maintain the status quo," "restrict technology," and "Return To Nature." But there are a great many people in the movement who know that it is technology that is going to see man through the next 100 years. It is the engineers and scientists, those who use technology, who must figure out how to handle the "wastes" from the various industries. It is the engineers and scientists who are going to have to come up with alternative energy sources as our supply of fossil fuels runs low. It is these men and women who will have to find substitutes for the natural resources that we are gradually using up. Technology must not be restricted, for all the reasons Miss Rand gives; technology must advance past the polluting phases.


Miss Rand disapproves of the suggestion of Russell Train (chairman of President Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality) that "improving the quality of life will entail unpopular cutbacks on luxuries." [18] Yet the old injunction "Waste not, want not" is true even in our "affluent" society today.

No one has the right to tell another person what he should want or need. However, the wants and needs of a rational man do not proliferate without limit. For example, Miss Rand notes that "a rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly by his own effort" [19] This means for one thing that a rational person does not go out and try to purchase things for which he hasn't the money. There are other ways a rational person limits his wants and desires. Even if he has the money, he does not go to the grocery store and buy 50 bananas when he knows that he will probably be able to eat only about a dozen bananas before the rest spoil. Or, finally, a rational man does not spend his last cent to buy a phonograph record when he knows he will be hungry before he gets any more money.

This is just to point out there are rational wants and needs and there are irrational wants and needs. It is true that what may be a luxury to some may be a necessity to others, and that, as Miss Rand notes, an item that saves labor also saves time and therefore saves life. [20] But there are rational and there are irrational purchases. A person must ask himself how much he really benefits from the purchase. Is he really getting value for value? He must also consider if his purchase is helping to kill other people.

Why should a person buy a monster-car if his rational needs can be satisfied by a smaller car whose engine can burn fuel more efficiently and therefore pour fewer poisonous fumes into the atmosphere? Why should a person continue to use DDT, whose long-term poisonous effects on humans are proven, when there are pesticides on the market that will accomplish the same tasks without such harmful effects on the eco-system? Why should a person leave lights on in unoccupied rooms, wasting electricity and money,…and causing some power plant to pollute that much more? Why should a person leave the water running or a dripping faucet unfixed, even if he can "afford" the water bill, when it will put an additional strain on water treatment facilities? He should consider whether he will be able to "afford" additional taxes that he and others will be charged for additional water.

The rational man will also not consider his purchase just while he is in the store. He will also consider what has gone into making the product and what will happen to it when he is done with it. Why not buy paper products made out of recycled paper and avoid some of the damage being done to our forests by some lumbering companies? Why not purchase the vitamins that come in just a bottle instead of those that come in a bottle inside a box which adds that much more to the waste problem? Would Miss Rand consider such questions demeaning of man?

By luxuries, rational ecologists simply mean irresponsible purchases. If Americans were to be more responsible in their purchases, it would help alleviate some of the pollution problems.


Much of Miss Rand's information about the ecology movement seems to have come from a NEWSWEEK magazine article which she quotes often. [21] To take a single NEWSWEEK article as representing the true picture of the ecology movement is to lend to the magazine a credibility I doubt she would ordinarily grant it! And when the NEWSWEEK article says or even some "ecologists" say that their programs cannot be accomplished "without some fairly important modifications of the American tradition of free enterprise and free choice," [22] it's most likely they do not even understand how a truly free enterprise system would work.

But from such statements, Miss Rand seems to jump directly to the conclusion that the immediate goal of the ecology movement is "the establishment of a global dictatorship" and "the destruction of the remnants of capitalism in today's mixed economy." [23] An ecologically responsible world does not require a global dictatorship. It is not at all incompatible with a free, rational society. But we shall return to this.


Neither is the ecology movement an anti-capitalist movement. To quote the title of Michael Etchison's article in REASON (March/April 1970), "The Snow Turns Black in Moscow, Too." Granted, the more advanced a country is, the more useless wastes it produces and the more concern is felt over what to do with these wastes. Russia has a pollution problem it is attacking. China has hardly any pollution problems. Germany and Japan have serious pollution problems. Ghana and Peru do not. It is simply confusing the issue to say that an attack on pollution is an attack on capitalism.

Nevertheless, Miss Rand is right about one thing. We must be on our guard against the leftists who would use ecology as an excuse for imposing more government controls on industry. On the other hand, if people are going to violate the rights of other people, a limited government could step in to prosecute violators. What should we expect from government, business, and the private citizen with respect to the movement to maintain an environment fit for man to survive in?


Miss Rand says, "The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationship.…It is the principle of justice." [24] And she says, "A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.…He does not switch to another the burden of his failures.…" [25] And finally, "The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others." [26]

One idea to come out of the ecology movement is the broadening of the concept of physical force. If someone were to add a tiny bit of arsenic to your food every day until finally you died of poisoning, he would be guilty of murder. If he had help, if he enlisted the aid of several people to make sure you got your daily dose of poison, they would all be guilty of murder, although no single one had given you enough poison to kill you. Similarly, if a chemical manufacturer is guilty of dumping waste arsenic into a river, the water of which is then used by a people downstream, that plant should legally be charged with attempted mass murder. It, as a human institution, is just a guilty of the initiation of physical force against other human beings as if it had gone around to every household at dinnertime and sprinkled a little arsenic in the food of everyone in that town.


But we do not have to go to this extreme and talk about life and death and murder. As we said at the outset, we are talking not just about the survival of a species called "man," or even of the deaths of men, but of a certain quality of life for individual men. As Miss Rand says,

If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights.

To recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man's nature for his proper survival. [27]

To show that Miss Rand's concept of the use of physical force against individuals has always included the broader concept we are talking about, let me quote her one more time: "Man's rights can be violated only by the use of physical force." [28]

Therefore, when we have a manufacturer destroying the quality of life of people in a town by dumping poisonous wastes into the air or the water of that town, wastes which have a deleterious affect on the health of the people who drink that water or breathe that air, the manufacturer is guilty of violating other people's individual rights, of using physical force against these people, and he must be prohibited from further action of this nature. Miss Rand says, "The necessary consequence of man's right to life is his right to self-defense." [29]

In a civilized society, however, it is not left to each individual to defend himself against incursions against his life. This task is given to government. Against quoting from Miss Rand,

The only function of the government, in such a society [i.e., a capitalist society], is the task of protecting man's rights;…the government acts as the agent of man's right of self-defense.… [30]

The point to be stressed here, however, is that industry can be and has been just as guilty of violating men's rights as any person or government! Miss Rand says, "Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent 'Thank you' to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find." [31] We in fact should thank industry for the fine world in which we live, but this does not mean we should praise its garbage and its hooliganism at the same time!

The right of industry to exist is derivative from the right of man to survive. The right of man to survive is primary. Industry has the right to exist only if it helps, not destroys, man. If an industry, as a "sideline," kills or even makes men sick, it is infringing on the rights of others, and its harmful practices should be stopped by the institution set up for the protection of men's rights—government.


There are some guidelines that must be followed by government in applying its delegated power, however. And in many cases the laws being proposed to "regulate" industry or other polluters do not stay within these guidelines. As Miss Rand says, "It is not solutions that the leftists are seeking, it is controls." [32] Again quoting here: "Specific laws—forbidding specifically defined and proved harm, physical harm, to persons or property—are the only solution to problems of this kind." [33]

To repeat: "The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others." [34—emphasis added] This includes government. Government "may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use." [35]

The retaliatory use of force requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures. [36]

The role of government, then, should be clear. It is the task of government to protect our lives against those individuals who would destroy its quality by polluting the environment. (Of course it is not so clear in the society in which we live what the role of government will be when it itself is doing the polluting! Here and now, we can only hope for government to police itself.)

By condemning the entire ecology movement, Miss Rand seems to be caught up first of all, then, in the trap of the stereotype. Not all people in the movement are out to destroy material prosperity. There are many who have an honest concern for man's life. Also, she is guilty of assuming rationality on the part of all businessmen and industrialists and irrationality on the part of all eco-freaks. Of course neither group is all one or the other. Third, she is guilty of dismissing the problem as being less serious than it is. There are documented cases of people's lives being harmed by pollution; it is not a problem to be dismissed lightly.

Finally, surprisingly and ironically, by condemning the entire ecology movement she is guilty of denying that man has a right to his life. Let us hope Ayn Rand's followers will use reason in this issue and not follow her blindly. I can again quote Miss Rand: "It is reality that serves as men's ultimate arbiter: if a man's judgment is right, the rewards are his; if it is wrong, he is his only victim." [37]

Brian G. Mason is a graduate student in journalism and philosophy at the University of Utah and has a master's degree from George Washington University in Public Administration and a bachelor's degree from the University of Wyoming in international affairs. He served as director of the University of Utah's Ecology Center from its formation in the summer of 1970 until the summer of 1971, and was also on the Governor's Advisory Committee for "Environment '71," a week long educational program on the environment for the State of Utah.


[1] Ayn Rand, VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS (New York: The New American Library, 1964), p. 17.
[2] Ibid., p. 23.
[3] Ayn Rand, "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," THE OBJECTIVIST, January and February 1971.
[4] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," February 1971, p. 10.
[5] Ibid., p. 4.
[6] Ibid., p. 8.
[8] Ibid., p. 24.
[9] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," January 1971, p. 6.
[10] COUNTERACT, Vol. 1, No. 1, 15 February 1970, p. 11.
[11] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," February 1971, p. 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p. 5.
[14] In late July 1970, a blanket of white smog in Tokyo sent more than 8,000 citizens to hospitals (THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, 4 August 1970, p. 1). The deaths in Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948 are famous. In the last 20 years, 46 people have died in southern Japan from eating fish poisoned with mercury (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 29 July 1970, p. 7).
[15] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," January 1971, p. 6.
[16] Paul Swatek, THE USER'S GUIDE TO THE PROTECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT (New York: Friends of the Earth/Ballantine Book, 1970), p. 141.
[17] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," February 1971, p. 5.
[18] Quoted in Ibid., p. 2.
[20] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," January, 1971, p. 4.
[21] "The Ravaged Environment," NEWSWEEK, 26 January 1970.
[22] Quoted in "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," February 1971, p. 3.
[23] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., p. 32.
[27] Ibid., p. 108.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ayn Rand, CAPITALISM: THE UNKNOWN IDEAL (New York: The New American Library, 1967), p. 19.
[31] "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," February 1971, p. 1.
[32] Ibid., p. 5.
[33] Ibid.